When Toyota moved upmarket in 1989, it created a whole new luxury-car division. We all know the result of this ambitious move: Lexus is now the bestselling luxury automaker in the United States, one with real cachet.
So when Hyundai decided to demonstrate its newfound self-confidence with the introduction of the Genesis in 2008, we wondered if the Korean automaker would do a Lexus. Or could. After all, the Hyundai brand does come with some flimsy baggage, which was hardly the case with Toyota in ’89. The first car Hyundai exported to the U.S., in 1986, was the Excel (sedan and hatchback). Its strong suit was its cheapness, an approach that came back to haunt the company when the appalling quality of its cars became apparent.
Until very recently, Hyundai was still regarded as a cheaper alternative to the likes of Honda, Mazda, and Toyota. What first changed that perception was the 2006 Sonata, which vaulted Hyundai from being a last-place player in mid-size-sedan comparison tests to a midpack player.
Hyundai (and sister company Kia) has upped its game significantly since then, spending lavishly on better interiors and powertrains, lagging behind now only on driving dynamics, if anything. Even so, it is still a surprise that the Genesis wears standard, run-of-the-mill Hyundai badges rather than a new badge that befits its step up in luxury.
Just as we did with the LS400 in the first year Lexus began its line of luxury cars, we decided to subject the Hyundai to more than the usual length of our long-term test to evaluate the seriousness of its ambitions. In the case of the LS400, we doubled the then-standard 30,000-mile test to 60,000 miles. With the Genesis, we have decided to publish this 40,000-mile progress report, then follow up with a final summary at 100,000 miles, when Hyundai’s generous powertrain warranty expires. (Well, that 10-year or 100,000-mile warranty applies to the original owner. If the car is sold, it’s five years or 60,000 miles.)
Just like that first LS400, the Genesis offers a lot of car for the money. Powered by a brand-new 4.6-liter V-8 and riding on a new rear-drive platform, the Genesis offers horsepower and interior space that rival vaunted machinery from the likes of Mercedes, BMW, and, yes, Lexus, at a base price that’s considerably lower. Our 375-hp Genesis makes only seven fewer horses than the Mercedes-Benz S550, but its current base price of $40,300 undercuts that of the S-class by $52,175. It is $25,955 cheaper than the Lexus LS460, offers more interior volume, and has just five fewer horsepower.
Our test car arrived with the $4000 Technology package added to an already sybaritic list of features that includes full leather trim on the seats, the doors, and the dashboard. The package offers a rear backup camera, HID headlights, a cooled driver’s seat, navigation, and a 17-speaker Lexicon surround-sound system that is an improvement over the standard 14-speaker deal. This ran the price to $42,000, which has since risen to $43,800 for a Genesis
optioned this way.
It’s clearly a real value, and it looks handsome and understated. But how much luxury-car credibility does the Genesis have, lacking, as it does, things such as a three-pointed-star hood ornament or a kidney-style grille?
According to some in the Car and Driver nerve center, this Hyundai doesn’t have much in common with the princely Germans. Some initial comments in the logbook were scathing, referring to the buttons and switches as “definitely bargain-basement.” A well-known believer in the quality of German cars (Quiroga) said that the steering-wheel-mounted buttons had “something cheap about them.” He went on to say, “This [car] is a dumber idea than the VW Phaeton—and at least the Phaeton was a great car and a great basis for a Bentley.”
Nonetheless, anyone who in fact spent a lot of seat time in the Genesis warmed to it. The engine is terrific: smooth, powerful, always eager to please. With a 0-to-60-mph time of 5.3 seconds and the ability to run the quarter-mile in 13.8 seconds at 104 mph, the Genesis is quicker than both the S550 and the LS460. This is Hyundai’s first-ever V-8, and it seems almost miraculous how well it measures up—from a standpoint of power output and its noise, vibration, and harshness levels—to its more exalted rivals. Had GM or Ford turned out an engine this good on their first attempts, we’d have proclaimed those companies worldbeaters. However, there were complaints about the throttle tip-in being too abrupt.
The interior is comfortable and cosseting and remarkably spacious. This writer schlepped his family of four across country with seemingly everything on board except a 50-inch plasma TV, and there was hardly a complaint from the back-seat riders. (Well, except to ask when we were going to arrive at our destination, to which the universal answer remains, “When we get there.”) Our VW Phaeton lover later wrote: “Growing on me. Comfortable, quiet, reasonably refined. A nice Lexus clone.”
The electronic gizmos work very well. The rotary control for the navigation, audio, and Bluetooth is easier to operate than some of the systems from German automakers, although there were gripes about the iPod interface and the way that the navigation system demands a street name before one can enter the city.
A more fundamental problem is the car’s ride quality. The Genesis handles decently—if you haven’t been exposed to German luxury cars. But the trade-off for decent body control and steering—it bests what’s offered by Lincoln and Buick—is impact harshness that borders on the unacceptable, especially on Michigan’s frost-heaved roads.
Throughout its first 40,000 miles, the Genesis was generally reliable, suffering only two significant problems, neither of which left us stranded. The first was dealer-related. After the 15,000-mile service—a routine oil and filter change—the Genesis disgraced itself by soiling not one, but two pristine driveways with oil spills. A visit to a local dealer revealed a “faulty O-ring,” which we think was due to a technician forgetting to remove the O-ring from the cartridge-type filter housing and then adding a new one on top, which caused the filter body to not seal properly.
The other problem was the sound system twice going mysteriously silent. The first time was on my cross-country drive. I immediately called the Hyundai public-relations office—would you want to drive thousands of miles without a radio to drown out the rear-seat whining?—and was put in contact with a technician who talked me through the reboot process. Apparently the radio can get stuck in Bluetooth mode and refuse to play any audio. The same problem occurred later, at 26,467 miles.
Over this 40K run, the Genesis required attention every 7500 miles, or five routine services that cost a not-so-routine $605 in total, plus $856 for a new set of tires after 35,000 miles. That’s luxury-car money. (Remember our long-term ’09 Jaguar XF [November 2009]? Its four services cost $667.) The Hyundai’s 15,000-mile service was the most expensive of the five, at $204. A word of warning: Our dealer obfuscated about service packages that may cost more on an a la carte basis than the maintenance recommended in the owner’s manual. Unusual for a Car and Driver long-termer, and fulfilling the expectations of the luxury-car buyer, the only other charges were for swapping winter and summer tires. The Genesis averaged 21 mpg, which lines up with the EPA’s ratings of 17 mpg city and 25 highway.
After 40,000 miles, nothing had fallen off the Genesis, nothing serious had broken, and it hadn’t quit on us even once. The leather looked as if it had been subjected to 40,000 miles of hard use, but the cabin held up well nonetheless. A few creaks and groans could be heard inside over harsh impacts—otherwise, the car has fared well and still looks good.
So the Genesis isn’t a Mercedes and lacks the stellar ride, handling, and refinement of an S-class, but it’s a superior vehicle in the $40,000 bracket, making front-wheel-drive-architecture cars such as the Lincoln MKS and Cadillac DTS look like also-rans. Beware of any automotive pundit who tells you this Genesis is superior to a BMW 5-series, but keep in mind that it does provide plenty of features and ability for five figures less than a base 535i. The Genesis is a smart luxury buy, particularly at a time when conspicuous consumption is out. But we’re still not sure how many people will think of Hyundai as a luxury brand in the future, in the way that they do with Lexus right now.
Our extra-long-term, 100,000-mile Hyundai Genesis is beginning to pile on the miles, and many of the car’s original critics have mellowed toward it, recognizing that it’s a luxurious and spacious long-distance cruiser that’s also a good value.
This past summer, the Genesis made the 6000-mile round-trip trek from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Monterey, California, for the annual vintage-car jamboree that takes place on the peninsula. On the way, our travelers, a family of four, decided to spend a couple of days camping in the Black Hills area of South Dakota. This short diversion necessitated adding a tent, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and various camping materiel to the assorted luggage needed for a week’s vacation. Oh, plus a couple of coolers with food and drinks. By the time that lot was jammed into the trunk, there was an overflow of various toys and trinkets that the two young passengers deemed necessary for survival on the road. The commodious back seat looked a little cramped once backpacks, blankets, a Hot Wheels collection, and half a library shared space with a couple of kids.
Still, there was little whining about the lack of room. (There was plenty about the amount of time spent in the car, but is that really surprising?) The availability of an in-car DVD system would have been nice. Instead, a newly bought power inverter enabled laptop movie viewing, which seemed to keep the youth content for hours at a time.
But there was nearly a disaster after leaving Madison, Wisconsin, en route to California. The stereo completely quit. No amount of playing around with the settings could cause the speakers to produce sound, so we called some Hyundai PR representatives, who eventually talked us through the process of rebooting the system. Apparently, the audio system can get stuck in Bluetooth mode, which is precisely what had happened. The problem occurred again later but was looked at by the dealer in that case.
Otherwise, the car acquitted itself well. It was quiet, easily ran 350 miles between fuel stops (that was generally longer than our passengers could), and was very stable at speed. At times in the middle of nowhere we ran in triple-digit territory, and the Genesis tracked straight and true. Even on the odd occasions when we ran through twisty roads, it was pleasing to drive, although the body control isn’t up there with that of a BMW 5-series. While the ride quality is lumpy in Michigan, we discovered that once you’ve escaped the frost-heaved roads of the Midwest, it is acceptable: The one carsick-prone child never felt ill, even when he had his head buried in a book.
Back home, the Genesis returned to the dealership for a routine service and oil change at 23K miles ($113), as well as a follow-up visit in October to have its winter rubber installed and to have the aforementioned radio issue examined ($11).
The Hyundai Genesis represents a real stretch in brand coverage for Hyundai, one that could almost be seen as on par with Toyota’s launch of Lexus in 1989. Even though Hyundais are competitive—and best in class in some cases, such as interior quality—the automaker is still synonymous with value at the volume end of the market. It was the same for Toyota when it launched its Lexus luxury brand. Now, of course, Toyota has a cast-iron rep for quality and is perceived by many people as making the best family vehicles. The Lexus brand is astutely distanced from Toyota but has an equally stellar image.
When Hyundai set out to make the first true Korean luxury car for the U.S. market, it didn’t start a new brand, with all the associated dealer and marketing costs, but instead chose to launch the Genesis under the Hyundai umbrella. The Genesis is the company’s first rear-wheel-drive product offered to U.S. buyers, and it signals Hyundai’s intent to move upmarket in the long term, which is where the profits are in the auto business. (Indeed, it intends to bring its even more luxurious Equus sedan to the U.S., too.)
When the 1989 Lexus LS400 debuted, we decided to extend our normal long-term test from a then 30,000 miles to 60,000 to see if the car was as solid as Lexus was claiming. With Hyundai, we decided to go even farther: a 100,000-mile test, the length of Hyundai’s powertrain warranty and more than double our now-standard 40,000-mile interval. The thinking is this: Most modern cars stand up well to 40,000 miles of routine abuse in our hands. But how well does a car cope with the equivalent of eight years of driving compressed into a time period of less than 25 percent of that?
We ordered a V-8–engined Genesis, which comes with the 375-hp, 4.6-liter engine and a full flotilla of luxury features, from the leather-wrapped dash and door trim to the power rear sunshade. We added the $4000 Technology package that includes a rear backup camera, HID headlights, a cooled driver seat, navigation, and a 17-speaker surround sound system that’s upgraded from the standard 14-speaker affair. Fully loaded, the Genesis costs $42,050, which seems like a bargain for such a large, powerful car that has so many luxury features. A Lexus LS460 has five more horsepower but less interior space and starts at $64,700. A Lincoln MKS with the EcoBoost V-6 has 20 fewer ponies, less interior volume, and starts at $48,585. In short, you’re getting Mercedes S-class space for C-class money.
To say that the Genesis is a real rival to an S-class would be a bit like saying that our favorite local bar’s nine-dollar burger is as good as Daniel Boulud’s $120 double-truffle delicacy. But much like that nine-buck burger, the Genesis is still plenty satisfying, and its relative lack of sticker shock is a fine thing in these recessionary times. The styling, although derivative, looks substantial and classy. The interior is rich, inviting, and spacious. The car drives pretty decently, although the ride can be harsh over expansion strips. The engine provides good passing power and is nicely hushed at cruising speeds. Opinion is divided over exactly how luxurious this car is. The car snobs in the office dismiss the steering wheel and window switches as déclassé and out of place on a $42,000 vehicle with luxury pretensions. Others among us are amazed how Hyundai can bring us this much car for this little money, just as we were when the LS400 debuted.
So far, the Genesis has averaged a reasonable 21 mpg in our hands and cost $344 for its first two routine services, at 7500 and 15,000 miles. We were charged $104 for remounting summer tires in place of the car’s winter footwear—but don’t count that in our overall service tally—and had to put a half-quart of Mobil 1 into the oil pan at just over the 2000-mile mark.
As for that 100,000-mile goal, we’re off to a slow start: fewer than 15,000 miles in the car’s first six months with us, although we’re about to drive it across the country to attend the Monterey Historics at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca in northern California. If it can transport four of us across the country without too many back-seat complaints, it will have passed its first real test.